Sensational Living®

June 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Most, if not ALL, people, have some sort of collection or accumulation of items that need to be organized in some fashion. Logically, the solution is dependent on the type of collection, and because the types of collections are infinite, so are the solutions. Therefore, this column cannot be comprehensive, but as with previous columns, I can offer guidelines that can be adapted for any situation, using some of my own collections as examples.

Shelves: Museums seem to form the model for displaying most collections, with shelves of every material and shape and style used to support and display a variety of items. You can use “built in” shelving, you can use antique shelving, you can use pressed-board shelves, you can use various wooden, plastic or metal enhancements to pre-existing shelves. The point is to create a display that looks attractive, rather than merely a random accumulation of items. If you have small items, either put them in a small space, or group several of them together in one area, as I have done with some Dia de Los Muertos figures. If you have large items, don’t crowd them; let them shine individually (example: some dramatic New Guinea carvings I’ve acquired). If you have multiple items of similar size, consider using wooden blocks or metal cans or acrylic risers to give your items different heights (I’ve done this with my collection of small Native American baskets). Some people buy special display shelves that they hang on walls, but I’m not a fan of those.

Before leaving the topic of “shelves,” we must consider a special category: book shelves. Admittedly, because of the vast amounts of research that I do on numerous topics, I probably have thousands more volumes than the average person. Given this volume of volumes, it is important to keep them organized. Each topic is assigned to a particular room/zone. Each topic is subdivided in that room/zone. Then, I start placing the books on the shelves. If the books are too tall, they are placed in a stack horizontally on the shelves. Meanwhile, vertical volumes are pulled to the front edge of each shelf with the spines all flush with each other (this is a trick I learned while working in public and university libraries; another trick is to push the flush row of titles back about 3 to 5 inches, and use the space in front to display certain small items, but this reduces accessibility to the books). Sometimes I intersperse interesting non-book items between the printed volumes, but this also can reduce accessibility.

Tables: Tables come in every size and shape, and I have visited homes where every single table is covered with porcelain figures or other items. Not only does such placement invite breakage (by children, pets, visitors, yourself, all of the above), eventually such an approach interferes to day-to-day living, with maintenance/cleaning, and even with psychological comfort (as the brain is overwhelmed with continuous incoming stimuli). Have a small centerpiece, or an accent piece, but don’t feel as though you have to cover every flat surface.

Window Sills: If you have been reading previous columns (of course you have!), you can imagine that most of my window sills are full of plants. That is true, but sometimes I like to juxtapose something else with the plants. Last year, Chicago was fortunate to enjoy an exhibition by the Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly at the Garfield Park Conservatory; this display was fascinating, in that Chihuly’s glass sculptures tend to be biomorphic anyway, but they are rather stark, and to see them interspersed with the luxuriant foliage of the conservatory created a magnificent effect. One key factor to consider is that sunlight can fade items, so be cautious about what you put on a window sill (also consider that metal can rust if placed in the moist air adjacent to plants, as did an abstract sculpture from a Wisconsin outsider artist, that looked fantastic rising out from among the plants, but whose black enamel is now spotted with red rust).

Mantle: Fireplace mantles are like window sills but without the sunshine. Interior designers on TV often call fireplaces, “focal points” (but read my Senses of Living® column for July 2003 to see how I “really” feel about focal points); in truth, fireplaces often get attention, so I like to use mantles for large, exciting pieces, like the Tony Evans ceramics I’ve picked up on my travels.

Drawers: Despite my imploring you above to not overdo your displaying, sometimes I break my own rules. One houseguest strongly suggested I display less and rotate more. Theoretically, I agree with him, but my situation is a little different because, as someone doing research and consulting on lifestyle and decor, my home is a living laboratory. That said, unless you are in a similar position, DO NOT display all of your “stuff” at the same time. I have drawer units in a back room in which I house some of my sea shells, bones, fossils, minerals and other natural history specimens (remember, I used to be an evolutionary paleontologist); I also use data storage boxes, such as I described as being ideal for filing in last month’s column, for natural history specimens, especially large lots accumulated on single trips, or on return trips to the same area (such as one box that contains driftwood, abalone shells, unusual rocks and shelf fungi from northern California). I would also argue that some tiny items (such as my mother’s collection of miniature pitchers) should never be openly displayed, as they are too diminutive, too delicate, and are best reserved for intentional viewing from special homes within drawers or boxes.

Riker Mounts: Some items are diminutive and delicate, but still lend themselves to display when Riker Mounts are used. Riker Mounts are those glass covered, cushioned boxes that can be filled with interesting items, sealed, and hung on walls. I have the wall above my fireplace mantle ornamented with Riker Mounts full of butterflies, moths and insects collected during my misspent youth. Others might wish to display coins, unusual stamps, arrowheads and other artifacts, rare fabrics, pressed leaves from a vacation, or similar items. You may choose to place your Riker Mounts on shelves instead of hanging them on walls, or put them in drawers for safety. The net effect is that small items become protected, they are grouped for greater visual impact, and get raised from a horizontal to a vertical position for ease of viewing.

Music/Electronica: If you are like me, you have a plethora of CDs, vinyl albums, vinyl singles, music cassettes and video cassettes. You may be unlike me, and have an abundance of DVDs, video games, and more advanced technology. You can literally spend hundreds to thousands of dollars for storage units for these various items. Some of the storage units are like functional art, but I personally don’t have the room, desire or money for such highly specialized items. So, here are my various solutions for storing electronic items: Video cassettes: I have stored them on shelves, with their spines labeled, but now they are in a special chest of drawers near the VCR.

CDs: I have a special two drawer “box” unit for CDs. I have a shelf on a bookcase for CDs. I have a drawer in the chest of drawers mentioned above for CDs. I have a specialized shelf sitting on top of one of my speakers for CDs. I think I have too many CDs.

Audio cassettes: I have two special drawer units that sit on my second speaker, which hold most of my cassettes, but my collection has outgrown their capacity, so the rest of them are sitting in careful stacks on top of my CD unit on top of my speaker … this is NOT what you should do! They collect dust, they are susceptible to slipping off and falling behind a cabinet, and they are very precarious. Cassettes really need to be kept in some sort of enclosed environment, such as a drawer or specialized cabinet (though, I would probably not buy a specialized cabinet today, since I like multifunctional items).

Vinyl albums/singles: If you want to call me a dinosaur, be my guest, but I can assure you that much of my vinyl music is not available on CD yet, or if it is, I’m not about to spend the mega-bucks to duplicate music I already have (if you have that kind of disposable income, donate it to your favorite charity). I have found some of this music in the form of mp3 files, but I’m still not impressed with the quality. Vinyl still offers great bang-for-the-buck, if it is taken care of. Dust is the enemy. Heat is the enemy (I have seen collections of vinyl, worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, destroyed because they were stored in attics). Non-vertical storage is the enemy. So, standing albums upright on shelves, with their spines visible, is a great solution. Storing them upright minimizes damage. Some of my albums just sit next to each other, which unfortunately can cause wear on the album covers, whose art is important to their overall value. I sometimes use plastic covers for my more rare albums, and store them separate from each other in metal racks. I have contained my singles in magazine boxes that sit on shelves next to the albums. By the way, I would like to encourage you to arrange your music by artist organized alphabetically. I know of many people who think I’m retentive for doing this, but when I want to hear particular music, it’s easy for me! When one has hundreds and thousands of musical options, an alphabetical system is necessary (I also have separated some of the music out by genre, whether it is Celtic pop or the sleek sophistication of ABBA).

There are many more solutions to organizing collections, but you have enough information here to get you started. I’ll be back with more organizational tips next month! So, go get on with your Sensational Living®!